Q&A

Coming soon: Meet Patrick Wall, our reporter in Newark

PHOTO: Janet Upadhye/DNAinfo
Patrick reporting in the Bronx in 2013.

Elizabeth Green, Chalkbeat’s CEO and editor-in-chief, introduces Chalkbeat Newark’s senior reporter.

In 2011, I spent a lot of late nights reporting in Newark.

I was on assignment for a national magazine to write about the immediate aftermath of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift. As it turned out, the story never ran. But even if it had, it still wouldn’t have included half of what I learned in Newark.

Seven years later, I couldn’t be more excited to launch Chalkbeat coverage in Newark. We’re committed to doing a different kind of journalism, writing not just about but also for the community whose story we’re telling.

In Newark, we’re starting out as a year-long pilot launching March 1, with hopes to continue our work longer. We accelerated this pilot with a preview story — because this moment in time is once again significant for Newark schools, and our reporter just couldn’t wait to get started.

That reporter is the brilliant and dedicated Patrick Wall, who is in the process of setting down his own roots in Newark. Here he is, in conversation with me:

You started your career focused on one thing — teaching — and not too long after that pivoted to another — journalism. What drew you to education and teaching, and what inspired you to make the switch to writing about education rather than practicing it?

As I was graduating college I joined Teach For America, the organization that provides (brief) training to people who commit to teaching in high-needs schools. I’d actually majored in film, but I was drawn to the idea of trying to help give young people some of the same opportunities that I felt I’d been afforded through education. I strongly believed (and still do) that public education is central to everything America claims to stand for — democracy, opportunity, equality — and that the condition of our schools is a measure of our commitment to those ideals.

But I soon found that believing strongly in education and being a strong educator are two very different things. First at a charter school in Gary, Indiana, then at a district school on Chicago’s South Side, I experienced firsthand the extraordinary demands put on teachers, the limited support they receive, and how they’re forced to contend with the by-products of poverty that students carry into the classroom.

Eventually I decided I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher. As I was figuring out what to do next, I briefly ran an after-school program at a public school in a wealthy suburb in my native Ohio. The contrast between what I saw there — the cutting-edge facilities, the calm and orderly atmosphere, the students and staff who seemed to have everything they needed to function at a high level — and the inner-city school where I’d recently taught was shocking to me. I decided I wanted to understand that inequity, and tell others about it, which led me to journalism.

Welcome to Chalkbeat
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization covering the story of education in America. Our newest bureau is here in Newark. To get the latest on your local schools, and what changes here mean for schools across the U.S., sign up for our newsletters here. And tell us what stories you think we should be covering by filling out this brief survey here.

Your first journalism job was at DNAinfo, the late, great neighborhood news source, where you covered the South Bronx. You hadn’t ever lived in the South Bronx, and you were relatively new to New York City at that point. How did you get to know a new neighborhood with a lot of history — and where most of the residents didn’t look like you?

I tried to attend every community board meeting, precinct meeting, church festival, and school hearing that I could. I didn’t have a car, so I took the bus or walked everywhere — real “shoe-leather reporting.”

I was always aware of my identity as a white, middle-class professional in a predominantly black and Hispanic  community that’s part of the country’s poorest Congressional district. That meant constantly checking my assumptions and having a lot of humility. I was an outsider, so it was incumbent upon me to learn the local context, understand what issues mattered to the local community, and spot and try to correct my own blind spots.

If that sounds like a lot of work, it was also probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a job. I got to spend time with immigrant parents who’d banded together to improve their local schools, a food-justice activist who wanted to turn a school bus into a rolling farmers market, and a local rapper who performed in a psychedelic Darth Vader mask.

After working at DNAinfo, you came to Chalkbeat, where you covered New York City schools. What’s one of the most interesting stories you covered while on the New York City school beat?

Probably the series of stories about a low-performing high school in Canarsie, Brooklyn. The city had just launched a massive turnaround program that the mayor promised would transform long-struggling schools. We wanted to show what that looked like at the classroom level.

What I found were dedicated teachers and school leaders trying to move the school forward. But it sometimes felt like as they scrambled to meet an ever-growing list of demands from above, they were trying to improve everything at once but actually changing very little. All the while, their students — many of them brilliant, perceptive, and hilarious — nonetheless showed up to class tired, hungry, stressed, and overwhelmed.

The story left me daunted by the challenges facing high-poverty schools, but inspired by the people inside them.

You’re now planning to move to Newark, New Jersey, and jump onto the Newark beat. As soon as we mentioned the possibility of opening reporting in Newark, you made your passion for the city clear. What makes Newark’s education story so compelling to you?

Newark’s schools, like the city itself, have such a rich history. They’ve been subject to massive demographic changes, occasional mismanagement, and sustained efforts to improve them by civic groups and philanthropies, parents and educators, and, most recently, a hard-charging cadre of self-described reformers.

Now, the city is beginning a pivotal new chapter as it regains control of the schools after a 22-year state takeover. I’m eager to report on how the school board uses its new authority, how the charter sector continues to evolve, and how Newark’s families keep pushing for the best education possible for their children.

I couldn’t imagine a more exciting place to report on public education right now.

How can readers reach you if they want to get to know you?

My email is pwall@chalkbeat.org, and you can follow me on Twitter at @patrick_wall. Plus get all the latest updates from Chalkbeat Newark by signing up here.

I’m eager for your thoughts on stories I should write, questions I can explore, schools I should visit, and local spots I must try!

Meet us

Chalkbeat Chicago reporter Adeshina Emmanuel on race, public schools, and “tough love” in CPS

Last week, I gave you an overview of our plans for Chalkbeat Chicago and shared an inside look at our first community event in Washington Park. (Stay tuned: Several more community events are on the way.) Today, I’m excited to offer a deeper introduction to my first hire: Adeshina Emmanuel, an Uptown native who is a Chicago Public Schools grad. Ever want to talk public schools? Adeshina attended five CPS schools, graduating in 2007 from Friedrich Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center.

Adeshina has been plenty busy since then: staff jobs at the Chicago Sun-Times, DNAinfo Chicago, and the Chicago Reporter; writing for Chicago magazine, In These Times, Ebony, the Chicago Reader, and Columbia Journalism Review; and leading in-depth reporting projects through City Bureau, a Chicago civic journalism lab. His writing and reporting about race and class is insightful and honest, and I’m excited to be working alongside him to tell the complex story of Chicago public education.

Since he’s the new guy, I asked him to answer a few questions about himself and his approach to the education beat.

You’ve primarily been writing about race and class in Chicago. Why are you diving so deeply into education at this point in your career?

It’s a natural progression. This new role gives me the opportunity to examine race and class through the lens of education, while connecting the dots to politics, finance, and other forces shaping our public school and charter systems. We can’t have a serious conversation about American inequality without considering how these dynamics help shape and manifest in public educational institutions such as CPS, especially in an infamously segregated and racially problematic city like Chicago.

You’re a graduate of Chicago Public Schools. Looking back as an adult, how would you describe your experiences?

CPS was far from perfect—but I wouldn’t be the journalist, or person, I am today without a lot of the guidance, love, and tough love from the schools I attended. That includes students, principals, assistant principals, school disciplinarians, teachers, teachers assistants, security guards, school counselors, basketball coaches, and more.

I won’t get into my whole CPS journey. But there’s a crucial moment I’d like to share. It’s a story about how one selective-enrollment school in Lake View pushed me out and how a neighborhood school in Uptown took me in—and helped shape who I am.

Third grade was a rough year for me. I was an emotional and outspoken know-it-all who clashed often with his teacher and spent a lot of time in the office accused of disobeying authority. My greatest nemesis—if a third-grader can really have a nemesis—was a sixth-grade boy who was in my older sister’s homeroom and rode the school bus with us. He had a habit of making suggestive and demeaning comments to her. The bully and I had fought one-on-one at least twice, and he beat me up pretty bad both times. I never told my parents or anybody at school.

One day, he touched my sister—again—as we rode the school bus home. We confronted the bully with some friends, and, this time, our clash got back to officials at our school. We were pressured to find another school.

My mom decided on our neighborhood school, Joseph Stockton Elementary (now Courtenay, after a 2013 consolidation). At Stockton, I found a sense of family that had been lacking at my previous school. The teachers and administrators knew my mother, and many of the mothers at the school knew each other from the neighborhood.

At Stockton, I fell in love with the written word. I remember my fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Simmons, who was one of the first to encourage my craft. My fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Zaccor, challenged me with books beyond my grade level like Native Son and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. My basketball coach, Mr. Yolich, taught me about hard work and self-discipline both in the classroom and on the court. Yolich, who grew up in Uptown like me and was very involved in the community, was well put together, respectful and laid back—but blunt—and I looked up to him as a role model.

These are just some of the people at CPS who have changed my life for the better and taught me the power of a loving and engaged school community.

What do you think is missing in the conversation about Chicago education?

I wouldn’t say these things are missing, just that we need them to be more prominent in our conversation.

We need to talk more—and with more honesty—about the ways that racism and other forms of systemic oppression have affected schools historically and today. We need more discussion about the link between poverty, trauma and violence in youth. We need to take a more intersectional view of the forces students face when they hail from various marginalized groups or identities, especially gender nonconforming people, immigrants, students with mental illness, and students with disabilities. We need more of a solutions approach to the conversation about Chicago education—and to not simply call out issues. We need more continuous focus on the resilience, imagination, and courage exercised by students and educators pushing for solutions to problems in education, not just when there’s a headline grabbing event like a walkout, a school closing or a hunger strike. Everyday efforts can be both empowering and instructive.

What is your philosophy about engaging the communities that you cover?

Be present, listen, collaborate, and report back.

I approach community engagement with an open ear for how people describe their relationship with institutions, their personal histories, and how their stories relate to both the history of their community and the history of the institutions that serve the area. I also want to take stock of what’s working, what’s not working, and what they feel they need to solve their problems. Each person’s perspective is like a thread. It’s my job as a journalist to help weave these threads into a narrative.

How can readers reach you?

On Twitter, @public_ade, and via email, at aemmanuel@chalkbeat.org. Or, if you see me, say hi. I’ll be out there.

 

An Introduction

What’s missing from the conversation about Chicago schools?

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
A table of students, parents, educators and community members participate in a conversation hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and Generation All.

Last week, I co-hosted a dinner for 45 parents, educators, students and community members at Walter H. Dyett High School for the Arts in Washington Park. Over some of the best chicken and biscuits I’ve had in my life, I posed this question. The list of responses was long and impassioned, but one answer, in particular, stayed with me long after we all went home.

“There’s a disconnect between the policy makers and the people on the ground. Too often, I have to bring my own chair to the table.”

I get this.

A few weeks ago, I dropped my son off at kindergarten and drove back to my home office to start a new job as bureau chief of Chalkbeat Chicago. Even in a district powered by school choice, landing a spot in a “good” kindergarten felt like a struggle: starting with testing in a hot, crowded room with other nervous parents and kids and ending with 11 waitlists.  

It’s one thing to write about school choice as a journalist; it’s another to experience it as a parent.

I’m approaching this job as both. At Chalkbeat Chicago, we plan to cover early childhood education through K-12, which means assessing everything from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “diploma mandate” to the highly touted freshman tracking program To & Through to efforts to tamp down the district’s high debt. We will examine decisions made in the boardroom: on spending, school openings and closings, charter authorizations, leadership, and the like. But we’ll also be reporting from classrooms. As a parent, I can attest that you can’t really understand the district’s opportunities and challenges until you spend time talking with educators and seeing kids in school.

And as our dinner guests last week stressed, to get the full picture, you must engage the community, too. To get the Chicago bureau up and running, we plan to launch a Listening Tour that will take us around the city to better understand what’s working in public education and what’s not. We already kicked it off with our dinner at Dyett, which we hosted with the neighborhood schools advocacy group Generation All as part of the Chicago Community Trust #OntheTable2018.

Some questions participants raised in that conversation:

  • There are serious questions about who wields the power, from mayoral control of the district to concerns about Local School Councils. LSCs need to be supported, trained by the central office and promoted. Participants asked: Where is the accountability to the public?
  • More honesty is needed about how deeply racism shapes schools. Is school funding equitable? What does it mean when some schools have art teachers and librarians, and others don’t? Why does it seem like some neighborhoods have a say in whether they get charter schools—and others don’t?
  • We know that an overwhelming number of Chicago children suffer from trauma and stress. But suspensions, expulsions, and discipline have become the norm instead of counseling and kindness.
  • Schools used to be the center of community life. That’s why the stakes are so high when schools are slated to close. How can we return to that thinking? How can we invite the community and parents in? How can we develop more community leaders and partnerships that build up neighborhood schools?
  • Wanted: better ideas for parent engagement. How do we bring in parents into a child’s educational life?
  • The public narrative of Chicago schools is overwhelmingly negative. Let’s figure out exactly what’s working and, first, replicate it. Then celebrate it.

People kept talking, and our list of participants’ questions kept growing—even after the dinner was over, the biscuits were gone and the school was closing for the night. I’m pleased to say, though, that this was just a start. As we host more conversations across Chicago, we pledge to make public what we learn. We also plan to use what we hear to help set our coverage priorities for the year.

Tomorrow, I’ll introduce my first new hire: Adeshina Emmanuel, whose writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ebony, Columbia Journalism Review, the Chicago Reader and Chicago magazine. By the end of May, we’ll start publishing a weekly newsletter that summarizes what you need to know about Chicago schools. It will elevate some of the great reporting that’s already happening here and include our observations as well. Moving into fall, that newsletter will appear with more regularity. By June, we plan to start publishing stories on our site as we move about the city on our Listening Tour.

Getting started, I’m eager to hear from you. Tell us what you think is missing from the conversation about Chicago schools, find out more about our Listening Tour or send us a story idea or just hello: chicago.tips@chalkbeat.org.

Since our dinner, I’ve been thinking a lot about the guest who spoke so passionately about bringing her own chair to the table. At Chalkbeat Chicago, we want to invite everyone into the discussion, from the power brokers to Chicago educators to community members, like her, who feel like they haven’t been heard.

Join us. There are plenty of chairs at our table for everyone.